‘We live in a age when private life is being destroyed’, Milan Kundera said in 1985. ‘The police destroy it in communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and their sense of it. Without secrecy, nothing is possible-not love, not friendship.’
Some of technology’s most furious political and sociological critics focus on the expansion of the work week and the virtual workplace-now everywhere and inescapable, fastened to your belt or pinned to your ear. A decade before they were fully wired, Americans passed the Japanese to become the most overworked workforce in the developed world. Now devices like the BlackBerry chain even managers and high-salaried professionals to a twenty-four-hour clock that figures to burn them out more rapidly than nineteenth-century wage slaves. Wired America doesn’t rest, and who benefits from that? Long before the computer was a twinkle in Thomas Watson‘s eye, John E. Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said something(circa 1925) that enemies of the wired workplace love to note and quote: ‘The emphasis should be put on work-more work and better work. Nothing breeds radicalism more than leisure.’
Of all the artists and thinkers who’ve rejected the cyber-revolution, perhaps the most emphatic was the late American poet, publisher, and photographer Jonathan Williams, who divided his distinctly original life between the North Carolina mountains and the Yorkshire Dales. ‘I have a feeling about the Internet,’ Williams wrote. ‘I think it’s the younger sister of the Gordon Medusa. If you look more than about twice you’re going to get turned into stone or something much worse, more unpleasant.’
For the last word, it seems appropriate to return to those solemn voices from the recent past, from the Maine silence where this meditation began. Marguerite Yourcenar offers her prophercy in the words of the Roman emperor Hadiran(AD 76-138): ‘I doubt if all the philosophy in the world can succeed in suppresing slavery; it will, at most, change the name, I can well imagine forms of servitude worse than our own, because more insidious, whether they transform men into stupid, complacent machines, who believe themselves free just when they are most subjugated, or whether to the exclusion of leisure and pleasures essential to man they develop a passion for work as violent as the passion for war among barbarous races. to such bondage for the human mind and imagination I prefer even our avowed slavery.’ (Memoirs of Hadrian, 1951)
And this is Scott Nearing, from his book Living the Good Life, published in 1970: ‘Machine tools are a novelty, recently introduced into the realm of human experience. There can be no question but the machines have more power than humans. Also there can be no question but that they have watered down or annihilated many of the most ancient, most fascinating and creative human skills, broken up established institutions, pushed masses of “hands” into factories and herded droves of anonymous footloose wanderers from urban slum to urban slum. Only the historian of the future will be able to assess the net effect of the machine age on human character and on man’s joy in being and his will to alive.